There have been many film genres that the United States of America has either made famous or perfected. One of these genres is the crime film. From The Public Enemy (1931) to The Godfather (1972) and GoodFellas (1990), some of the most popular and memorable American movies have been about criminals. These films are classics, but there is more to this genre than American movies. If you’re a true crime film fanatic, you’re missing out on some excellent films if you don’t check out movies from other countries.
It can be overwhelming to decide which country you should visit first on an international crime film tour. But to start I’d like to point you in the direction of Brazil. In particular, that country is responsible for the 2002 classic City of God. That movie tells the story of the titular “favela” (Brazilian Portuguese for “slum”) from its founding in the 1960s to the 1980s through the eyes of Rocket, a resident who will overcome tragedy to become a photographer.
From the first shot of a knife being sharpened to the last shot of a gang plotting a takeover, City of God practically pulses with energy and ideas. Rocket’s journey is a compelling storyline, but there’s so much more to this film. Director Fernando Meirelles and co-director Kátia Lund find time to explain the history of the favela, how criminal enterprises there work, and tell the story of several gang wars waged by the villainous Lil’ Ze and even an apartment that keeps changing hands between criminals.
The filmmakers anchor their stylistic ticks — kinetic editing, chapter titles, dynamic camerawork — in naturalism through their casting. The only actor who had professional experience before this movie was Matheus Nachtergaele, and he lived in the real-life City of God for three months to prepare. Everyone else had never acted before, and some of them — including Alexandre Rodrigues who plays Rocket — were actually from the City of God. They improvised throughout the filming, lending truth to this film’s depiction of fictionalized versions of real-life events. You might enjoy it more if you know something about Brazilian crime history, but it’s also just as entertaining if you know nothing about Brazil. The conflicts that the film’s characters face, such as the desire for success and relationships to their home neighborhood, are universal and would fit right in with any American gangster film.
After watching City of God, you could get an idea of the crime genre’s versatility by watching Le Samouraï (1967). This French film tells the story of Jef Costello, a hyper-competent hitman played in an iconic performance by Alain Delon. Costello’s life gets endangered when a pianist sees him leaving the scene of a crime. He’ll have to work hard to survive, but Costello is nothing if not a professional.
Jean-Pierre Melville, who loved American crime films, co-wrote and directed Le Samouraï, which is as cool and patient as City of God is vibrant and fast-paced. Certain chase scenes, which would feature fast-paced music in most American films to create tension, instead play out with no music and let the audience generate any anxiety from suspense about Costello’s fate on their own. There are even some shots — two centered close-ups in a scene where Costello interacts with a superior — that could be put in an Ozu film.
While this cool style owes something to American crime films — Costello dresses like he’s in a 1940s film noir — it’s also indebted to French existentialism. Sartre’s conceptions of the idea that you get to choose your own life, but have to live with the consequences, feels like a driving engine of Costello’s story. Melville’s style would also be as influential to other artists as American films were to his own. The list of films that Le Samouraï influenced is long, and includes John Woo’s The Killer (1986) as well as Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999).
After you watch this elegantly cold (in a good way) film, you might want something a little more energetic. If that’s how you feel, you can check out an Indian movie called Sarkar (2005), which is a Hindi word that has the equivalent meaning of “godfather.” A title card informs you that it’s a “tribute to The Godfather,” and there are many similarities between those two films, right down to the opening scene of a man asking for vengeance from a powerful crime boss. But there are also fascinating differences. Whereas Vito Corleone had three sons, Subhase Nagre has two sons, the wayward Vishnu and the unlikely heir Shankar. Director Ram Gopal Varma and writer Manish Gupta give Vishnu characteristics of Corleone’s sons Fredo and Sonny, as well as a character arc that’s fascinating in its own right. They also make Shankar more realistically fallible than Michael Corleone; he makes more mistakes and takes some time to grow into the role of a “Shankar.” This film is proof that the legacy of classic films such as The Godfather doesn’t just lie in its success on its own, but also in the works that it inspires.
After watching Sarkar, which has a sprawling cast and many subplots, you could have a change of pace by watching the British crime film Bronson (2008), which on some level is a one-man show that tells the single story of Michael Peterson, aka Charles Bronson, Britain’s most famous and violent prisoner. Bronson always wanted to be famous, and as he recounts his exploits to an imaginary audience as well as directly to the camera, we realize that his wish has perversely come true.
Bronson was the breakout film of actor Tom Hardy. It’s the type of role that’s showy enough for an actor to dig their teeth into, like when Bronson acts out a scene between himself and a nurse with half of his face dressed as a woman so he can play the nurse. But Hardy isn’t afraid to show Bronson’s vulnerabilities, or the less attractive sides of his personality. There are other actors in this film, and some of them bring a wit and spark to their scenes — especially Matt King as Bronson’s bare-knuckled boxing promoter and James Lance as Bronson’s art teacher in prison — but Bronson is truly Hardy’s film.
One of the things that I love about these films is that they reflect an idea writer-director-actor Bill Hader called “finite humanity.” That concept states that films as well as books around the world and across time reflect the same issues and feelings that people face in the present day. Rocket’s desire to escape in City of God or Sankar’s wish to prove himself to his father in Sarkar are relevant to audiences in any country. In a time marked by distrust and division, it might be odd to find solace that people around the world can find that they share a common humanity with each other through watching fictional characters who do illegal and immoral things. But, as Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond once wrote, “nobody’s perfect.”
Upcoming IU Cinema screenings of international films with crime elements include Pájaros de verano (Birds of Passage) on April 26 and 29 and Dogman on April 30 and May 1. Both films are part of the International Arthouse Series.
Most of the films discussed here have been shown at the Cinema:
- Bronson in 2013 in conjunction with director Nicolas Winding Refn’s visit to the Cinema
- City of God in 2015 for the President’s Choice series
- The Godfather in 2016 for the Cinema’s fifth birthday celebration
- Le Samouraï in 2017 for the series 5X Jean-Pierre Melville: Dangerously Cool
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.